A murder story unlike any other you’ve read
In recent years, literary works that are classified as “investigative reporting” have not only become best sellers, but have lingered on the shelves for decades. Examples are Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter-Skelter. All were in-depth non-fiction works that go under the classification of “crime fiction.”
Now comes Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness, neo-noir study of a bizarre rapist/murderer who picked his victims from the “hostess clubs” of Japan’s Roppongi entertainment district of Tokyo. The consequences are commendable. Parry not only takes his readers into the luxurious and exciting locations where privileged gentleman dine on champagne and exotic food while conversing with beautiful women; he also ventures into a murder site that is so “otherworldly” it seems lifted from some dark Edgar Allan Poe fantasy, a tomb “by the sounding sea.” Are you ready?
Lucie Blackman came from a privileged English family in a posh town in Kent called SevenOaks (the omitted space is intentional). Lucie, her look-alike sister Sophie, and her younger brother Rupert all seemed destined to attend the best schools and universities, after which, they would settle into comfortable and secure lives.
And so it was until Lucie and her best friend, Louise Philips, decided to become airline hostesses for British Airways. The time with the airlines was exciting but exhaustive, and both women became deeply in debt. As a consequence, they became “hostess girls” at one of Tokyo’s most famous clubs, the Casablanca. This is where Lucie would meet Joji Obara, the man who would rape and murder her, behead her and cut her body into pieces which he would cast in concrete and bury in a cave near the sea.
Parry goes to considerable trouble to explain what a “hostess girl” is in Tokyo. To an extent, the setting resembles the old Hugh Hefner Playboy clubs. The patrons, usually middle-aged, wealthy Japanese businessmen, sit around a table conversing and singing (karaoke is very popular). All of this is under the watchful eye of a “momma-san,” and the girls are not allowed to leave the club with customers.
However, there is a complex process by which a customer may invite a hostess to dinner outside the hostess club. Also, customers indicate their approval of a hostess by purchasing additional time (dohans) with her, and an appealing hostess may increase her salary by increasing her dohan. (The girls even encourage their friends to invite them to dance halls, movies and restaurants outside their place of employment so they can increase their dohan.)
Parry notes that the owner of a club like the Casablanca is a highly gifted manager who moves through his club noting those that are not successful, and he will withdraw a girl from one table and transfer her another where the “chemistry” might be different. The system’s protocol dates back to the centuries-old geisha tradition.
The killer, Joji Obara, is one of the most complex murderers in the annals of crime. His I.Q. is estimated at 200. (Joji also has a bit in common with Bill Cosby when you think about it. Of course, Cosby didn’t kill anyone, at least as far as we know.) Although Joji has managed to destroy most of the information about his past, he is thought to be Korean, the traditional “enemy” of the Japanese people. It is also believed that Joji had his face altered by surgery.
Throughout his trial, he refused to face the spectators and photographers, so photographs of his face are extremely rare. On the days when the Blackmans were scheduled to testify, Joji refused to leave his cell. His inherited riches are beyond knowing, although his trial — which lasted six years — may have seriously cut into his wealth. He owns real estate, including hotels and parking lots. He has expensive hobbies and owns a dozen of the world’s most costly automobiles. He lives a luxurious, solitary life. By the time we finish reading his incredible story, he has drugged and murdered eight people (he has raped hundreds).
Although he was found guilty of numerous rapes and murders, the drugging, rape and mutilation of Lucie Blackman is not one of them. Despite the fact that her family spent millions of dollars on the search for her body (and were victimized by a gaggle of fake detectives, kidnappers and psychics), there was no “smoking gun” forensic evidence that proved he murdered Lucie.
Apparently, Joji never attempted to seduce his victims. He drugged their drinks and when they were unconscious, he frequently forced them to inhale or drink chloroform. At one point in the investigation, the police found an incredible cache of film that indicated that Joji’s victims numbered in the hundreds.
He not only filmed the rape of each victim, but he wore a mask in the film. The rapes were “ritualized” and sometimes lasted for several hours. If the victims showed any evidence of reviving, Joji administered more chloroform. It is the chloroform that killed the eight women.
It is interesting that Joji never expressed any regret about the deaths, merely dismissing the rapes as part of a “game” that he had developed for his own amusement. Just in case you feel that you have read the most outrageous aspect of this murderer’s career, let me add one more astonishing fact. Near the end of the trial, as a token of sympathy for the grieving Blackman family, he asked his lawyers to present a contract that stipulated that he would pay them $1 million yen if Ken Blackman would sign a document that noted that Ken Blackman was skeptical of some of the evidence against Joji Obara.
He made the same offer to all of the other families of victims. Now, pause for a moment and consider this astonishing fact. Ken Blackman accepted the money. In all fairness to Ken Blackman, he actually set up the Lucie Blackman Trust that provides aid to young women who travel abroad. He contributed to charities, too. However, he also bought a beautiful yacht called “The Infanta.” His acceptance of Joji’s money alienated him from his daughter, Sophie, and his son, Rupert. Both have undergone extensive psychiatric treatment.
Are there unanswered questions? Oh, yes. Most of them concern the incompetence of the police and the maddening slowness of the Japanese court system. Parry presents explanations. It seems that in Japan, the police are not accustomed to investigating crimes or locating murderers.
The legal system is proud of the fact that 99 percent of cases end with convictions since guilt is proven before the trial begins. At the present time,
Joji is serving a life sentence, but a battalion of lawyers are working tirelessly to overturn his convictions. He could be out in 20 years.
This review is not the place to deal with the complexities of Lucie Blackman’s murder investigation and the Kafkaesque ordeal that the Blackman family experienced while living in Japan. Parry’s exhaustive research is evident throughout People Who Eat Darkness, which includes footnotes and bibliography. In addition, there is additional material available on YouTube (interviews with the family).
Ken Blackman’s stubborn determination to find his daughter prompted him to conduct an amazing public appeal that made him a celebrity in Japan and, in the final analysis, enabled him to goad both the police and the court into action. At one point, he acquired the assistance of England Prime Minister Tony Blair in his public appeals for information. Lucie was murdered in 2000. People Who Eat Darkness was published in 2007. After a significant success in England and Japan, it is just now, belatedly, reaching an American audience.